Africa must escape from being a prize for world powers

Africa’s fast-growing array of choices in external partners is raising the prospect of a 21st century scramble for Africa — a modern-day race to secure privileged, if not exclusive, access to the continent’s economic, security and political assets and resources. China’s extraordinary level of engagement in Africa has been much chronicled of late, and there is a growing awareness of the rising focus on Africa by other powers — Russia, India, Turkey, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Iran, to name a few.

Contrary to the 19th century race to carve up the continent by imperial powers, however, many of these actors have increased their engagement with African nations out of a pragmatic recognition of the continent’s present and future potential to exert power in ways that matter as the world becomes increasingly diffuse and multipolar.

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Thus far in the 21st century, however, the United States has been variously engaged and distracted in Africa. When the United States has provided leadership and undertaken robust diplomatic, development and security efforts, it has been capable of inducing enduring change, which has engendered not only immense goodwill, friendly relations and popular affinity for the United States but also tangible peace, security and economic dividends for African citizens. These have included enabling the resolution of several of Africa’s longest-running and deadliest civil wars, from the Sudans to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Liberia, as well as engendering irreversible strides in health, education and poverty reduction, such as through PEPFAR, MCC and USAID.

By contrast, when the United States has become distracted, political settlements have been more likely to fail (such as in South Sudan since the outbreak of civil war in 2013), democratization has faltered (such as in Burundi, Zimbabwe, and the Congo), and peace and security challenges have festered and metastasized (such as in Libya). When hopes for peace are lost, democratic aspirations dashed, or economic expectations left unfulfilled, the American exemplar loses steam — fairly or not.

A key question for the next decade will be what role the United States will play along this spectrum of engagement. Africa is most often treated as a minor theater when it comes to core U.S. national security interests — be they fighting terrorism or prevailing in a major power competition. This view has largely held despite Africa's status as the fastest-growing economic region in the world, its position astride several vital commercial shipping routes, its reserves of strategic minerals, and its potential for major new markets of consumers. As McKinsey notes, “Africa is a 1.2 billion-person market on the cusp of transformative growth.”

This century will finally see the continent escape from being a prize — or burden — for world powers to scramble over or toss, from one to another, as if playing geopolitical capture the flag or hot potato. African states and their citizens will have more choice, and more agency over those choices, than ever before. Collectively, the 55 members of the African Union will yield increasing influence on the shape of international norms and governance.

The Africa region holds the largest voting bloc in the United Nations General Assembly and three seats on the Security Council. If they succeed, current efforts at continental integration, such as the African Continental Free Trade Area, the passport for visa-free travel within Africa, and other African Union reforms, will further strengthen Africa’s collective voice.

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A more clear-eyed picture of the continent for the United States would also account for the unprecedented demographic growth under way. According to the United Nations in 2017, “Of the additional 2.2 billion people who may be added between 2017 and 2050, 1.3 billion will be added in Africa.” This means the continent’s population will grow from comprising 17 percent of the world’s population in 2017 to 25 percent in 2050 and to 40 percent by 2100.

By 2050, the populations of 26 African countries are projected to at least double in size. Nigeria, currently the world’s seventh most populous country, will surpass the United States as the third most populous country in a territory nearly one-tenth the size of China or the United States — and with 50 percent of its current population below the poverty line. Beyond 2050, Africa is the only region of the world projected to grow significantly; Asia will be in demographic decline.

The picture of Africa in the 21st century comes into sharper focus when we consider that African populations increasingly will be young, urban, educated, digitally connected and mobile. In 2017, 60 percent of Africans were under the age of 25, and it is the only region where the youth population is still growing.

And these youth are making their voices heard, demanding democracy, jobs, education, health care, safety and security. While their track record in eliciting enduring reform is mixed, they are not likely to be silenced, particularly if economic opportunity fails to keep pace with demographic growth and as some leaders attempt to cling to power — extending or exceeding term limits or closing space for democratic competition.  

Africa is too big and too diverse to characterize its democratic trajectory in one stroke. Some governments are concerned with the welfare of their populations and accountable for their performance. Others see governing as a means for maximizing personal wealth. But across the spectrum, they are grappling with how to respond to the plethora of external actors before them. A number of African leaders are banking on their ability to leverage the interests of their newer (“non-traditional”) and even older (Western) partners to supply external legitimacy and financing to perpetuate their rule — popular pressure for democratic change and socioeconomic progress notwithstanding.

This will prove a fatally flawed strategy in every case, as history has shown. The only question is how much time will be lost, and at what cost, before the people get the kind of responsive, accountable, inclusive governments they demand and deserve.

In the 21st century, Africans will be the most important actors in determining their nations’ and their continent’s trajectories, whether toward greater prosperity, security and equality, or downward into socioeconomic distress, instability and violence. To ensure the former, governments in Africa will need to be representative of their people and accountable for daily safety and security, rule of law and essential public services that will enable meaningful livelihoods for individuals and families, and stable conditions for communities and societies to thrive.

Africa’s external actors — the United States and otherwise — would do well to understand that the most profound competition of the day is for Africa's youths, who are increasingly unrelenting in their demand for governments that work for them, rather than outmoded kleptocratic and illiberal rule. The United States’s clear and long-term interest is to unequivocally ally with them.

Kate Almquist Knopf has served as director of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, an academic institution within the U.S. Department of Defense, since July 2014. From 2001 to 2009, she held several senior positions at the U.S. Agency for International Development, including as assistant administrator for Africa and Sudan mission director. Follow her on Twitter @almquistkateThe views expressed here are her own.